Pregame: Sox Vs. Royals

Mike Lowell’s progress has improved exponentially over the last two days, according to Red Sox manager Terry Francona. So much so that Lowell will try to hit off live pitching in batting practice today.

“Yesterday was the most encouraging day he’s had in a long time,” Francona said before tonight’s game vs. the Royals.

Lowell, who is on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 28, hasn’t played since June 27 because of a strain to his hobbled right hip.

So what’s the difference between yesterday and the weeks before it?

“He didn’t hurt. That’s all it really is — he wasn’t in as much pain,” said Francona.

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Rocco Baldelli took ground balls at first base yesterday, but Francona insisted he would only be used at that position as a last resort.

“He’s been doing that since the beginning of the year. But it’s not like we’re going to pinch run [with] him and throw him (at first) and try to win the game that way,” said Francona.

Catcher George Kottaras has also been taking ground balls at third base, but would likewise only be used there in last-resort situations.

Francona is impressed by the progress of rookie reliever Daniel Bard, but is still holding off the righty from pitching in particularly trying circumstances.

“Bard is a lot more comfortable up there. I didn’t want to bring him in when it was necessary that we get an out — in those tough situations. He’s understood that and he’s used it to his advantage,” said Francona.

Francona said he hears the calls from talk radio to use Bard and his sometimes 100 mph fastball in tougher situations, but doesn’t want to shun his veterans.

“I don’t think I’d be doing a real good job if you’re using the flavor of the month every game. I can’t say, “Hey, Oki (Hideki Okajima), thanks for the last three years, but I don’t need you right now,'” said Francona. “Maybe you can do that if you’re on the radio or from a newspaper, but I can’t.”

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